Even 100 years after Julia Greeley’s death, Denver’s ‘Angel of Charity’ is still making an impact on the lives of firefighters in Colorado, like Lt. Derrick Johnson.
“Julia Greeley has been harassing me,” Johnson told the Denver Catholic with a laugh. “It is funny to say that, but Julia has not left me alone.”
Johnson is a Denver native, a 14-year veteran of the Denver Fire Department and now a candidate in the archdiocese’s diaconate program. Johnson says people kept randomly asking him about Julia, so he finally looked her up.
“She cared so deeply for the wellness and spirituality of Denver firefighters,” Johnson recalled of what he learned. “This woman would go and talk to people like me and try and enroll them in the Sacred Heart Society, give them information on confession, or just sit there and talk to them about God. I looked at it and said, ‘Here I am now trying to live my faith because I feel called to do so, and trying to serve my brothers and sisters in the fire department, why wouldn’t she want to get in touch with me?’”
Greeley was a former slave from Missouri who made her way to Denver in the late 1800’s and became known for serving the poor, but also making routine trips to Denver firehouses. It is believed her affinity for firefighters may have started in 1895 after a fire at the St. James Hotel on Curtis Street killed four firefighters from Denver Engine Co. 3 a few blocks from where Greeley lived.
“She saw how quickly firefighters can be killed,” said Johnson. “She had a warm place in her heart for them and she went and she ministered to them.”
Johnson’s path to becoming a firefighter started in 2001. His original plan was to join the military and travel the world, but in April of 2001 his mom was hurt in a fall and Johnson felt compelled to stay closer to home. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, and Johnson says he found his future career.
“The images of [the firefighters] rushing in as everyone else is rushing out, the images of them digging at ground zero,” Johnson recalled. “I think also the sense of community within the firehouse that they experienced,” he said, is what led him to pursue being a firefighter.
Johnson became a firefighter in 2004, but despite choosing a profession of service, he admits the Catholic faith he was raised with was no longer a priority. His call back to the Church came after Johnson and his wife Lindsay had their son Jack in 2010, and he had a conversation with Father Frank Garcia at St. John the Evangelist in Loveland.
“He challenged me to step up and embrace my vocation of marriage,” Johnson said. “The center [of the universe] had been me, but then the idea came that the center could not be me anymore, the center had to be God and everything else had to be around it.
“Once I consented to letting God in, He flooded the gates with a lot of grace.”
Johnson says his faith grew from there, and he explored what it meant to be “an all-in Catholic.” Johnson admits he initially laughed at the idea of becoming a deacon, but he is now discerning that call.
“I know that God has called me to formation,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if God will say, Yes you will be a deacon,’ — I have no idea, but at the same time I am here to say yes to Him. I will open myself and I know I have at least been called to the next step.”
Johnson will start his second year of the diaconate program in September, but in the meantime, he’s become the Denver Fire Department’s official liaison to the Julia Greeley Guild. Johnson lined up an honor guard of Denver firefighters to be at the June 7 Mass celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Greeley’s death, and while the Catholic Church considers Greeley for possible sainthood, Johnson tries to continue her work here in Denver by being a spiritual resource for his fellow firefighters and serving the city of Denver.
“I have a deep devotion to Julia, and her life is absolutely a model,” Johnson said. “Her mission as she walked the streets of Denver was to be like Christ to the poor, and while the fire department wouldn’t say our job is to be as Christ, our job is to serve the poor.”
Featured photo by Mark Haas